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Just Because We Can, Should We?

by Julie D. Ramsay
June 25, 2014

In today’s world, the topic of using technology in the classroom can be intimidating. In this monthly column, join one teacher on a quest to discover the best way to meet the needs of her digital-age learners…moving beyond the technology tools to focusing on supporting each student’s learning. 

Just Because We Can, Do We Need the Technology?
photo credit: JD Hancock via photopin
via photopin cc

Warning: I’m about to let you in on how deep my geekdom really runs.

Recently, I was in a somewhat heated debate on the validity of the first three episodes of the Star Wars saga; I’m talking about Episodes 1–3, which were released from 1999–2005. My stance was the original three movies (released starting in 1977) were of much higher quality than the newer episodes. In the original episodes, the writing was of higher quality with the storyline and characters being more multifaceted; the plot was rich and full of literary qualities; and the acting was better (hello, Harrison Ford!). Personally, I also love the fact it was a fairy tale told about the distant past but appeared to be further into our future.

One point that kept coming up for debate was about the level of technology and special effects. More specifically, what wasn’t available when the original three installments were filmed, but which were spectacular in the more recent episodes. I can see how technological advances did add a “wow” factor to the newer films that modern audiences may see as lacking from the original three (I disagree, but that’s a topic of a different discussion). However, does all of that “wow” equate to a higher quality movie? Does it make up for the depth that was lacking from the story? I don’t think so.

As I pondered the educational lessons learned from this dialogue (yes, another one of my passions), I realized that in today’s digital world, it is very easy for us to get sucked in by the “wow” factor of new tech tools we can bring into our classrooms. We see things claiming to make our educator lives easier and make learning more fun for learners. However, just because we can bring that technology into our classrooms, does it necessarily mean that it will do a better job at supporting student learning? Are we willing to buy into the premise that bigger, faster, or easier is always better for our students? 

To be honest, I have found myself swayed by all of the bells and whistles only to discover my practice already provided the best support and level of challenge my students needed before our new, sometimes very expensive, toy arrived. So I thought I would take a few minutes and share with you my thought process when weighing “the wow” versus “the substance” a tool can provide.

What do my students need? Sometimes we go to professional learning events sponsored by major vendors and become enticed by all that their product claims to offer to our students. All of a sudden we find ourselves wanting a product in an area where we do not have any needs or gaps in learning. As with so many of the decisions we make as educators, we always, without fail, need to lead with the learning. I discovered that if I identify practices, strategies, and needs of my students regularly and I keep my focus on those, I am much less likely to get sold any snake oil.

For instance, we all know the power of small groups and one-on-one conferring with our students. The struggle I had was in how to document and collect that data in order to effectively develop my instruction for each student in a timely manner. I had tried many practices. Yet, I felt like I was using an inordinate amount of time away from the actual instruction. I knew I needed a better way, not just for me, but also for my students. So, everything I read, every vendor I visited, every educator with whom I conversed, I searched to fill that need. I adjusted my lens and kept focus until I found my answer in an app called Confer. Yes, you need to be open to new ideas, but student-need should always remain our focus.

What will it provide that I don’t already have? As educators, it is crucial we model lifelong learning for our students. Each student, each year, is unique. That means we must continue to search for tools to put into our teaching toolbox. When you see a tool with a lot of pizzazz, you need to take time to evaluate whether it promotes strong pedagogy. Mentally strip down the bells and whistles to see what it is truly offering to you and your students. Will it not only support student learning, but also do it more effectively than what you are already doing?

Several years ago, I encouraged my administrator to go with me to a technology conference with the sole mission of showing her the power of an interactive whiteboard. I saw it as a way to have students engaging with and creating content. In my mind it provided students, especially those with special needs, the opportunity to actively participate and engage in learning unlike anything we had done in the past.

However, what happened was the district bought one from different company, one which did not offer the same capabilities for student engagement. Every class in the district was given this extremely expensive piece of equipment which ended up being used as a whiteboard without the engagement originally intended. We already had whiteboards; this electronic version had no impact on student learning (whereas the other model, with its more student engagement-friendly features, may have). As the ones in direct contact with students, it is our job to peel back the glitzy façade and analyze how a new technology could fill a need for student learning.

What does it offer other than fun? I often hear teachers say how much students will love a new tech tool. They claim it will motivate students to want to learn. I have heard educators extol the features of a tool without once mentioning student learning. This is a danger I call “Christmas Morning Syndrome.” On Christmas morning, kids get up thrilled and excited by their new toys. They spend countless hours playing with them. They are having fun. But where are those toys in July? They are often broken, discarded, and generally left forgotten. See, although a tool may be fun, and research supports the role of fun within the learning process, fun without substance is short-term, not long-lasting. Just like those toys on Christmas morning, if we throw new tools at our learners expecting them to do our job of creating self-motivated learners, we are on a slippery slope.

We are the educators. We are the content specialists and educational strategists. It is our responsibility to make the best choices for our students. We need to tap into their interests and learning styles to provide instruction that meets their unique needs. We need to differentiate, assess, challenge, inspire, and guide them to meeting their goals.

None of these steps can be replaced by a tech tool. A tool’s role is to support aspects of learning and educating. If it can’t do that, we need to spend our time and resources elsewhere.

Until next time, may the force of making the best choices for your students be with you.

Julie D. Ramsay is a Nationally Board Certified educator and the author of “CAN WE SKIP LUNCH AND KEEP WRITING?”: COLLABORATING IN CLASS & ONLINE, GRADES 3-8 (Stenhouse, 2011). She teaches ELA to sixth graders at Rock Quarry Middle School in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. She also travels the country to speak, present, and facilitate workshops in applying technology to support authentic learning. Read her blog at juliedramsay.blogspot.com

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